John O’Connor. The English Scene. Andoversford: The Whittington Press. 2004. 70 pp. 12 by 9 inches (305 by 216 mm). Set in 14-point Bell, with 60-point Fry’s Baskerville on the title page. Fabriano and Hahnemühle mould-made papers, and Oxford cream laid for the engravings. Half-bound in buckram with printed paper cover, specials similarly half-bound but in leather, and with a portfolio of one print hand-colored and signed by the artist, and two other prints from the book. 155 and 360. 200 copies including 55 specials.
Books like The English Scene take years to produce. This book began in 2000 when a number of early blocks by John O’Connor were discovered in the byre by his studio in Kirkcudbrightshire. In his introduction, John Randle writes, ‘There were treasures there we had never seen in proof before, and this book is a distillation of these, and a few others which may be more familiar. Together they convey John’s own very intimate view of the English country scene.’
In 2002 Randle visited O’Connor with a tape recorder and with the help of O’Connor’s son Mike, encouraged him to record his comments about each block. At that point, with images and text in hand, publication was scheduled for July 2003, and work began in earnest.
There are many ways of introducing color into a book. Two methods often used by the Whittington Press are printing the engravings in a color other than black, and using different colored papers within the same book. In this case Randle decided to print the text on blue paper. When the book finally went on the press in the spring of 2004, O’Connor, sadly, had died, but before he did, he asked that color should be introduced to as many blocks as possible. The publisher obliged to honor O’Connor’s final wish. Once again, Randle enlisted the help of O’Connor’s son Mike, and together they made a number of color proofs which they showed to O’Connor a few days before his departure, and he was pleased with them. Those proofs guided Randle’s use of of color in the book. Besides printing some of the blocks in a color other than black, a number of the blocks had a second color applied separately to the block with a brayer. The result has a refreshing, printmakerly quality and is well suited to the bold, playful quality of line in most of O’Connor’s work; I say ‘most’ because two images in the book, ‘Sussex Stable’ and ‘Sussex Coast,’ both made in 1947, display the controlled detail work typical of British engraving of the time. O’Connor’s wife, Jeannie writes, ‘He has never admired what he calls ‘niggling’ — that is, exceptionally fine cutting, but in this case he did use it, I suppose, just to prove that he could.’
I first saw the work of John O’Connor in 1990 in the workshop of Johathan Stephenson, who was then working in an old brick stable in Blewbury, Oxfordshire. Jonathan possessed a number of O’Connor’s blocks and was printing editions from them. Some of the work was printed in two colors and I remember thinking how the second color (a transparent yellow), could just as well have been printed upside down, as it didn’t seem to bear much of a relationship to the first color. I was pleased to find an explanation in the introduction of The English Scene. ‘The images have a freshness and cross-stimulation from his work in other media that exemplify the assertion of a visual wit — a nudge towards the lively and away from the complacent — that lay at the core of his teaching (“turn the second block sideways and print in yellow”).’
There are a few examples of this technique in the book. In one case the second block has been inked up in two separate colors that were printed at the same time. Some of the images, however, are printed in black. Of particular interest is a series that was made in Yorkshire in the 1940s. The line quality, in contrast with his ‘niggling’ in Sussex in 1947, has a loose quality beyond his norm. O’Connor states, ‘Like the other Yorkshire engravings, this was done in not very good circumstances and in a great hurry, making the series almost impressionistic in quality.’
The title page has the elegent typographic simplicity we have come to take for granted in books from the Whittington Press. On the frontispiece rests a large black cat surrounded by flowers in four additional colors. The inking of the flowers is somewhat rough, presumably done with a hand brayer. The color treatment of this image not only establishes a motif used throughout the book, but also captures the essence of the artist — ‘a nudge towards the lively and away from the complacent.’ His final wish has been well granted.
Also of note is the verso of this sheet (preceding the frontispiece). We see only the faint impression of the cat. On the facing page we read O’Connor’s description of the source of the cat. The cat engraving is tipped in, and as a consequence rises up slightly, beckoning us to enter.
A book like The English Scene takes years to produce, and in the course of years things change. When O’Connor requested color be introduced into the images, the printing was already underway, forcing Randle to use a different text sheet. He went a step further by adding a postscript to the colophon, in which he explains, ‘The colophon page opposite was printed and then initialed by John (O’Connor) in early 2003. When it was decided to introduce colour into the engravings, we dropped the idea of using coloured paper for the text, and this single blue sheet is all that remains of that plan.’
A book evolves from an initial idea to bound copies. The bookmaker, at his best, lets the book breathe and define itself. At this, John Randle is as good as it gets.
Gaylord Schanilec is a renowned wood engraver and proprietor of Midnight Paper Sales. He lives in Stockholm, Wisconsin.